Part 2: Inheriting Our Mother’s Fears
Read Part 1, On Not Knowing, here.
I always think about my mother when I’m on an airplane, because she was terrified of them. The first time I was ever on a plane was when I was eight years old, and I flew alone from where my aunt lived in Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, where I lived. On that first-ever flight, I felt like I was just sitting in a room. I had no concept of anything short of invincibility.
On a daily basis, the things I don’t know about my mother don’t necessarily impact me. Occasionally, there are awkward questions. It’s hard to respond with brevity that’s not also brutal when people ask me where my parents live, what they do, why I’m not spending holidays or vacations with them. Sometimes, though, like when I’m on airplane, or in another city, or doing any number of things that she may have wanted to do but never did, I think about not just the things I don’t know, but the things I do.
From my mother, I learned fear. Not healthy skepticism or gentle caution, but fear, and paranoia, and the idea that it was perpetually dangerous to ever be too comfortable, to push too hard, to go too far. One should never trust people, or stop looking over one’s shoulder. Intellectually, I understand where this comes from—she was surprised by thyroid cancer at fifteen, struggled with infertility (or so I’m told), then cancer again and divorce, both while raising a child. It seems logical to me that she would think nothing was safe, and at the same time, the most pervasive feeling I have these days in regard to her is resentment and the perpetual question: What do you think of what I’m doing right now?
I have this picture of my mother as someone whose life was never within her control, for whom bad luck was the norm, and had constructed an identity based on victimization. If she were alive now, what would her advice be to me for my life?
I inherited my mother’s fear of flying. As soon as I was old enough to realize that there were things to be afraid of while 35,000 feet in the air, I was afraid. Whatever the logic was to the safety of flying, I managed to be unconvinced by it. The thought of getting on a plane filled me with such complete terror that I cancelled a trip to Israel in my third year of college. (This was shortly after my mother’s death, and my grandmother, alarmed by the thought of me leaving the country or even the state, did not attempt to talk me into going.) I didn’t actually manage to get on a plane successfully until I was 23, after realizing that the alternative was never leaving the country. I wanted desperately to travel, but what ultimately pushed me onto that plane was knowing that my mother had not, because of circumstances, and also because of a fear that I had assimilated but didn’t want anymore.
The older I get, the more questions I have for my mother. Did she think fear would protect me? As far as I can see, it did not protect her from anything except living her life, but there is maybe a different explanation. If I can’t know what it is, perhaps the best thing I can do for myself is to make it up.